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Listening Post: A wildly eccentric ‘mood’ album by Nels Cline and Bartok’s Quartets ‘By Heart’


Nels Cline, “Lovers” arranged and conducted by Michael Leonhardt (Blue Note, two discs). “I first thought of it in the ’80s,” says the Wilco guitarist about this amazing, idiosyncratic and crazily unpredictable album of “mood music.” “I would sit on airplanes and make lists of songs, add things, and cross things out and make arrows. I always wanted the record to be a somewhat dark and disturbing ‘mood music’ record. My idea was that it would reflect some less-traveled aspects of the idea of romance, love and sex. It’s gotten a little upbeat and varied over time.” But in the 25 years he’s been thinking about it, says Cline, “it was always going to be called ‘Lovers.’ ” And if you think, for a second, that gives you any insight whatsoever into what the guitarist is playing on these two discs, guess again. Don’t look for “My Funny Valentine.” Would you believe Jimmy Giuffre’s “Cry Want?” Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor?” Even if you do believe those, try these – the theme from Liliana Cavani’s kinky movie “The Night Porter” on the same two-disc set as a selection from “The King and I” and, yes, Henry Mancini’s music for “The Search for Cat” from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Cline says the whole set is a kind of a tribute to the late jazz guitarist Jim Hall, not just his version of “Secret Love.” The easy way to describe this repertoire is to bypass “eclectic” altogether and move all the way up to “eccentric.” Let’s call it what it is: a plush and singularly personal collection of mood music from the mind of a very willful musician. It’s all well-orchestrated by Michael Leonhardt (clarinets over a saxophone section, specified by Cline) and sensitively played by the guitarist as if from a “certain time” not quite ours. A wildly unprecedented two disc set. ŒŒŒ out of four. (Jeff Simon)


Bartok, “Bartok by Heart”: Complete String Quartets performed by the Ciara Quartet (Azica, two discs). It is the Chiara Quartet’s contention that playing a Bartok Quartet “from memory” without sheet music involves more than just “learning the pieces by printed music.” That, in fact, “through the memorization process, we are able to return Bartok’s music to the realm of unrecorded folk music he so lovingly captured” on sheet music. In effect, they say, they “almost magically” reversed Bartok’s original process, which was transcribing all that folk music. The resultant two-disc set, then, is fascinating. While you can’t entirely say that the music – the greatest string quartets of the 20th century along with those of Shostakovich – now sounds improvisational, there is something different about this towering modern music heard under these circumstances. It is, says notater Gabriela Lena Frank, “a feat that has to be experienced to be believed” when heard in concert. “I still remember leaving one concert both moved and speechless when the quartet passionately and lyrically performed two of Bartok’s Quartets plus one by Brahms (an early influence on Bartok) utterly without sheet music.” You will, indeed, know this is not the usual way of performing on disc this monumental music. If it somehow sounds “simpler,” it opens up all manner of questions, all of them interesting. ŒŒŒ½ out of four. (Jeff Simon)

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